Targeting the Kanju Maru

By the end of April 1945, Allied forces were dominating the skies over south Luzon and the South China Sea. Japanese transport ships could no longer go between French Indochina and Japan, and as a result a number of Japanese ships were stranded at Saigon, French Indochina. General Kenney called on the 499th and 501st Squadrons from the 345th Bomb Group to take out the ships at Saigon, a heavily defended target, on April 28th. The night before the mission, the crews gathered to hear the next day’s plans as outlined by their strike leader and C.O., Col. Chester A. Coltharp. The men were told that this was to be the most important mission in the 345th’s history before moving into the logistics of bombing the ships sitting alongside the Saigon River.

The third flight of the 501st Squadron was to be led by young 1/Lt. Ralph E. “Peppy” Blount, Jr. His crew was one of 15 B-25 crews heading for Saigon early on the 28th. On the way, two planes from the 499th had to turn back because of mechanical problems. The rest of the B-25s flew on without incident to the predetermined rendezvous point where they were to pick up a fighter escort. Coltharp knew they couldn’t wait long for the fighters to show up, so he broke radio silence to get their current location. It wasn’t good news. The fighters were still 20 minutes away, but they would be turning back because they were low on fuel. To make matters worse, the B-24s that were going to hit the target before the B-25s hadn’t arrived either. Bravely, the 13 crews continued to their target, knowing the Japanese would be ready for them.

As they arrived over Saigon, they were greeted with heavy antiaircraft fire. B-25 CACTUS KITTEN, flown by 2/Lt. Andrew J. Johnson, was soon hit by antiaircraft fire. It crashed and exploded. Peppy Blount and his wingman, 2/Lt. Vernon M. Townley, Jr., headed up the river to find their target, a large freighter called the Kanju Maru, that was guarded by several antiaircraft guns. Townley’s B-25 caught antiaircraft fire on the right engine, which burst into flames. He stuck with Blount as long as he could. Both crews peppered the ship with machine gun fire, then Blount dropped his bombs over the ship. The first bomb created tremendous damage after it was skipped into one side of the freighter and exploded. A second bomb exploded between the bridge and engine room, then the third created a large plume of water between the Kanju Maru and the shore after it blew up.

The Kanju Maru Explodes

The bombs from 1/Lt. Ralph E. “Peppy” Blount, Jr.’s plane explode, destroying the Kanju Maru.

Next, Townley released his bombs before his B-25 took another hit from flak. The second hit proved to be fatal as the B-25 rolled and crashed, with guns still firing. At this point, Blount’s plane was missing the trim tab and half of the right elevator, but could still fly. He pulled away from the ship and looked for other nearby targets, such as warehouses and boats. He came across a sailboat, which he strafed from a few feet above the ground. Too late, he pulled up over the boat, where the mast tore a hole in the right engine cowling, followed by a 10-inch deep hole in the horizontal stabilizer. It became lodged in the stabilizer and broke off.

With all the damage, the flight back was slow and tricky. The plane vibrated severely and couldn’t go faster than approximately 160mph. It took about five hours before Blount made it back to Palawan with only  a few gallons of gas to spare. From there, they joined the rest of the crews for the flight back to San Marcelino. The mission was considered a success and the 501st Squadron was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their accomplishments on the April 28th mission.

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